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tv   Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Honor  CSPAN  August 12, 2014 11:02am-11:39am EDT

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improving the lot of woman i think. yes, sir. somebody in the back there? >> i didn't read the letter to the grandson yet. but the last page -- not really the last page. you mentioned that when he served in the army, his feelings about patriotism, that's what i call, is different from the virginian, that they considered their state as country. so even in the beginning of the formation of the nation. so i'm looking at the word patriotism, in your book with the letter, is anything -- you have marshall's devotion was mirrored in his care to his family. however his devotion to his country, his patriotism is there any wording that really catered saying this is a country that had serves -- you follow what i'm saying? is that clear. >> i think you read a lot of his
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judicial decisions and you will see how much he loved his country. within a year or two of the new government after the constitution it was clear we had two political factions that were at logger heads with one another. the federalists trying to put together a new government you should the constitution that would knit these 13 little states together. and provide for the common -- well the preemable to the constitution. provide for the common defense, the general welfare. the power to tax, a power that here to for had only been reserved for states. it was doing something completely different. and thomas jefferson who's read the ancients and read them so much he knows in almost any republic there is somebody hungering for power, and someone who wants the take it over and be the dictator. and with that view he's suspicious of almost everything.
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and james madison who initiallily is something of a federalist and by federalist i think interested in the entire union over the interests perhaps of their own particular state. adams joins him and they become masterful political opponents and i think the federalist never really recover -- well they don't recover. they become incredibly obstructionist obstructionistic. read about the democratic republican and the federalists and how they fought and all the things they said about each other. i.e. incredible. i think it's -- we've been there before and i think we were there in a way that was profound. the thing that made marshall extraordinary in virginia was there were bt many federalist there. by and large they were
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democratic/republicans. therm jefferson people. and he paid no small price with his political views. he was really helpful to madison getting virginia to ratify the constitution but i think he became loan ler and loneliers in the past with views that were federal as opposed to tth jeffersonian point of view. he speaks magnificently of it. i've only quoted a little bit there. he never wrote an autobog of himself. but justice story whose a contemporary of his on the court delivered this wonderful essay after marshall died and incorporated a lot of what he had been given earlier by marshall. but i think the part that i quoted really gets why marshall was different and the federalists were different from democratic and republicans.
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it was what they had done during the war, what they experienced. marshall was a virginian a bit of a backwards virginian but joined the battle that marched forth and he became part of something that was much bigger than virginia and got to know people of many spate states and many different backgrounds and it changed him. and he began to think of united states as his country, not virginia and he began to think of the government as the government of the united states, not just of virginia and this gets revisited in the civil war. this is exactly what's happening and it begins these states are getting the rights they retained when they voluntarily became part of the federal union. and the view of the lincoln was not true. you are in in it.
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you stay in it. but primarily of the belief of the southern states that they were the primary unit, they had given certain things to the federal government but that they hadn't absolutely given up their right to be, you know, to be virginians or south carolinaens or whatever. i don't know if i'm answering your question well. marshall talks about it in supreme court decisions. i'd get a biography of marshall and read one. >> -- my question but i learned a lot. >> you're asking me -- let me just say this. not in any of his letters of advice did he give the sort of answers you are looking for. >> i came out of the church with this american flag and a woman said patriotic. well, i just -- i have two flags. but anyway, so i thought about it. because i look up the word i think last year, the word
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fascism. and it's belligerent patriotism. and i believe -- this is me. i'm not born in america. but i believe that americans born and immigrants, first let's talk about born american. it is just the lack of love for this nation. i don't feel there is a love of. it's like i have this flag and people look at me like what do i have a flag for? and as a teacher i bought a lot of little flags where we and we abolished, i will call it abolished, there is no more pledge of allegiance. and this is sad. but that is me. >> thank you. thank you for being who you are. really. yes, sir? >> -- touch on slavery and attitudes on slavery? >> no not reallily. no. i shouldn't say that. i think george mason in one of his letters discusses slavery a
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bit. but i think for most of the southerners slavery was a fact. they didn't see it ending. it would have been really neat if i could have gotten letters from somebody like robert king carter maybe who freed all of his slaves or edward coles along a little later. and coles is a neighbor and writes mr. jefferson i want to free my slaves and jefferson writes back ah it wouldn't be a really good idea to do that for a lot of different reasons and coles gets the idea he needs to leave. so he moves to what was then the west. he becomes in fact early governor of illinois but frees his slaves as they are acrossing the ohio river. so there were people that did it. and here again i think that letter of edward coles is beautiful because i think he really understands that slaves are human beings and they are entitled to every right that a human being has.
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every natural right. which of course here again in the declaration of independence is pretty well specified. it's funny -- and i think it was samuel johnson that said the people -- when he was in england during the revolution the people that yelled most about liberty are the ones with t a whip in the other hand to beat slaves. something to that. >> last question. >> last question, okay. >> what was the thought process in collecting these advice letters? and also getting the letters. oh it would be nice to get a [ inaudible ] >>, you know, there are a lot of letters that should be in this and i think this could be several volumes. if the first one is perceived to have value, then maybe we'll do another one and another one. we've got letters, lots of letters. the reasons for selecting what we did i think comes down to
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personal preference in many cases. making points that we think might be of interest to people. and dare i say it, dare i state the commercial motive? we include a lot of people who have homes that are still standing because they have bookstores and it is an outlet for selling books that are not being published through traditional channels and i think that's just recognizing what it is. but i would love to have some letters, for example of albert galleton, other people. there are a lot of really interesting founders that would be fun to include some of their letters. that's it. hey thank you very much. it's been a real pleasure to be with you.
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>> now i have the pleasure of introducing joanne freeman. she has a long history with the museum and even longer with
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alexander hamilton. 25 years ago john herzog approached a young women at the library of congress where the hamilton papers are lodged and this woman even a grad student had already curated an exhibit on hamilton. that became one of our earliest exhibits and that is joanne freeman. we have many hamiltonians here in the audience but how many of you have read all 27 volumes of the papers of the alexander hamilton and several times? of course joanne has. she started reading them as a teenager and her extensive research took her to scotland and nevus and st. croix. and she immersed herself in the culture living there several weeks. so much experienced hamilton that she went and fired a black
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powder duelling pistol. did at a gun range mind you. it's okay. oddly satisfying. not much of a kick but a dramatic pop and a dramatic puff of smoke soon after. so trying to capture the mood and moment of what it was like several hundred years ago and this extends to her ph.d. work done at the university of virginia of all places. so a hamiltonian in defrsen country. that is immersing yourself in a different culture. joanne pulled that trigger in research of her book affairs honor, national politics and the new republic. it also received high praise from her peers. joseph ellis called that book a landmark work. and when her edited volume
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alexander hamilton writings appeared was published and atlantic monthly acknowledged it as one of the best of the year. numerous articles in the journals and on ed pieces in the "new york times." on pbs and the history channel. a number of ratings problems. lectures at the smithsonian, library of congress, the treasury department and colonial williamsburg. and recently assisted the hamilton grange when it reopened here in new york. so it is no wonder that joanne was ranked as one of the nation's top young historians. in conclusion i quote words from 212 years ago. "it is my duty to exhibit things as they are not as they ought to be." . well that is good advice for an historian and joanne freeman explains life not as it ought to
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be but as it was. and those were alexander hamilton's words. our keynote speaker joanne freeman. [ applause ] >> thank you very much for that very gracious introduction. i have to say i'm really pleased and honored to be here speaking to you today. particularly at the end of what was an event-filled weekend celebrating and commemorating alexander hamilton's life and accomplishments, and particularly to be speaking here at trinity church, where hamilton was laid to rest 210 years ago today. now, my subject today is alexander hamilton as a man of honor. and i suppose rather perversely i'm going to start by telling you what i'm not going to be talking about today before i launch on what i am going to be
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talking about. i'm not going to be talking about what an honorable man hamilton was, although he certainly was ab honorable man. but instead i want to talk about what honor as i it was understood in the 18th century meant to him in a concrete way and how it shaped his thoughts and actions overthe course of his life. and i want do it in three parts. first how the concept of honor shaped hamilton's sense of himself. particularly as a young man. then i'll talk how the concept of honor shaped his politics and policies and finally i'll talk about the how the concept of honor led him to the duelling ground and the duel that ultimately ended his life. now at this point i'm very tempted to say that in today's world we really don't understand or appreciate honor all that much. now of course -- i see a lot of people nodding yes. that is not quite true. it is somewhat true. not quite true.
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but it is true that we don't understand honor today as someone like hamilton did in the 18th century. to an 18th century gentlemen, his honor, his reputation, his character was like a concrete possession. his most valued possession, worth fighting for, worth dying for. it really represented the essence of who a man felt himself to be. for politicians, honor was even more important. in the 18th century before being a politician was seen as job with job skills, men gained political office base on the reputation, on what people thought of their character, not base on job skills a clearly a man's personal honor was more important. men viewed as honorable were trusted with power. now hamilton clearly imbibed
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this concept already as a very young man, even as a boy. as an early letter he wroe shows very well. and as historian i think sometimes thank the history gods when i find a particularly wonderful piece of evidence. i'll mention a few today in my talk and this letter i'm going to quote from is one of those you thank the heavens for. because it is the kind of evidence that brings a person or idea to life in literally a sentence. and the letter i'm about to quote is actually the first letter we know of that hamilton wrote. it was written as a teenager. an illegitimate child living on st. croix in the west indies, working as a shipping company clerk to support himself and absolutely yearning to get out into the world to make something of himself writing to his best friend edward stevens he wrote "to confess my weakness my ambition is prevalent that i
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condemn the -- to which my fortune condemns me and would willingly risk my life though not my character to exalt my station." think about that last phrase for a minute. he's saying he would willingly risk his life but not his character to exalt his station torques better himself in the world. what he's talking about there is essentially hob honor. he would risk his life but not his honato atoror to better him. first of all remarkable for a teenager and pretty much sums up a basic attribute of his life and personality. he was willing to work hard and even risk his life. but he would quite literally guard his honor, character, reputation with his life. that remarkable letter ends with yet another really interesting sentence "i shall conclude saying, i wish there was a war."
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and as odd as that sentence may seem it makes perfect sense in the context of his letter. for someone without connections or money, fighting as an officer in a war was a fine way to earn reputation and honor. and it was hamilton's good fortune to come just as the american revolution was getting off the ground and he became engaged with the struggle at an early point. a believer in the cause of the colonies who was well aware of the fact he might very well be walking into the war that would enable him to make his name. and he assumed that the best way to make that name for himself was through an act of glory on the battlefield. now in the end of course, the most valuable boost to hamilton's representation during his wartime career was not only the battlefield but at general george washington's headquarters because working beside washington who even at the time was known as the nation's leading man or as some called
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him the first man. working by his side was invaluable in countless ways as hamilton's later career would show. even though hamilton was bound and determined for his moment of battlefield glory, to really prove his reputation and in a sense to come away with the war with a concrete something in hand. so throughout the war whenever an opportunity for the field command came into view, he in true hamiltonian style put himself forward as the man for the job. not until the battle of the york town did he finally get his glory. to lead a redoubt. and when washington told him he was going to have this opportunity one anecdote is he rushed back to his nicholas fish who was his second in command yelling we have it. we have it. just one of those wonderful human moments of the people being people even in the middle of history unfolding. so hamilton was on his way.
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but with the launching of the new nation, honor took an entirely new meaning for him. for the rest of his life in addition to concerning himself with the preservation of personal honor he would be focussed on the new nation's honor, on national honor t reputation of the young united states in the eyes of the world. now, as a brand new nation the united states didn't have centuries of the history and achievements and stability behind it. it had to prove its worth and status on the world stage. and in the context of the late 18th century, this was no easy task. think for a minute about the world that the united states was trying to impress. the american constitution created a republic in a world of empire s monarchies and monarch. the united states was something new. although founders looked back to the ancient world for guidance,
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in essence they were creating something new in the modern world. something untried, untested and fragile. and i think it is really easy to forget how new and experimental the young nation was during its founding years. you can certainly hear it in the comments of a lot of people at the time. so for example, here is james madison at the launching of the new government in 1789. he said "we are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us." george washington that same year:"i walk on untroden ground" and a senator from that period william clay of pennsylvania who had the same feeling in 1789. he wrote, the "world is a shell and we tread on hallowed ground every step." those are three remarkably similar statements. it is almost like these three woke up and conferred and, you know, theshaky ground metaphor,
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that is what it feels like. all three are describing the same feeling a feeling of not knowing where you are going, fear that the ground is going to break beneath your neat at any moment. they had a constitutional framework but no one what kind of nation was going to e mere emerge. the stakes seemed truly high for the people involved. they were deciding for all time whether the republic was feasible in the modern world. and alexander hamilton puts it it best in his first paragraph in 1787. and i read in this almost every class i teach at yale because i think it captures the mood and the experiment so well. so these are hamilton's words. "it seems to be have been preserved by the people of this country by conduct and example to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of
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establishing good government from reflection and choice or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. the crisis at which we are arrived may be propiety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made and a wrong election of the part we shall act may deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of man kind. think about the sense of responsibility that goes with that statement. they truly belief they are deciding for all time. if you can put a bunch of men in the room, have them calmly create a just form of government and put nit motion through a calm and deliberate process of ratification. could this new experimental nation hold its own? and if so, how? who were its friends, its enemies and what were the implications of making friends and enemies of different countis are? americans at the time really assumed that world empire,
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nations were hovering over the new republic sneering at its littleness and licking their chops. and i think the best example of american fears about what the world thought of them in these early years is summed in a hamilton document that is little known but i think a really fascinating one. and it is a draft and it never left his desk and probably a good thing in the end as you will hear as i describe what it is. in 1796 with the french revolution raging hamilton decided he would try to design a national seal for the united states. and as i say i think it is a memo he drew it up for himself and as far asky tell did nothing with it. but it is fascinating glimpse into his mind and a lot of other people. this is he suggests for the national seal for the new united states. a globe with europe on one side and america with the other and he wanted a colossus a client
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with one foot standing over europe and the other hovering over america. and he wanted america with a shield and spear basically doing this. he's creating this image of america fighting over this threatening image of the europe looming over it. it maybe graphic artsforte. in particular when i went back to look at this again, i found something i hadn't noticed before. it's a very complicatedem image and he talks about armor and shield and reeves and everything else and he says at the end of it, you know, if it's not complicated i think we should add neptune in the ocean in the middle of waves and maybe a trident. he really was enthusiastic about the seal. but clearly that is bringing to life the idea that the united states was well aware of the watchful and even threatening
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attention of the world. so given that context you can see how the new nation's reputation, its national honor in the eyes of the world would have mattered not only to hamilton but to the founding generation generally. and you can see him worrying about national honor right after the war in a letter he wrote in 1783, he urged new york governor george clinton to treat loyalists fairly as the war came to a close. not to penalize them or deprive them of property. because as hamilton explained in the letter, it was a matter of national honor. american treatment of loyalists after the war would say a lot about the character of the new nation. and hamilton wantsed the nation to start on the right foot. so hamilton was thinking about national honor almost from the launching of the new nation but he really concerned himself with the preservation of national honor when he became the nation's first secretary of the treasury in 1789. he was the man responsible for
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dealing with a new nation's enormous disorganized war debts. so essentially he was responsible for establishing national credit. hamilton's concern with national honor makes sense if you think about the meaning of the word credit, the formal focus of his job. credit is essentially honor in another form. credit, a person with credit is trust worthy, a person with credit has a reliable and upstanding character. a nation's credit represents all of those things as well as its standing in the eyes of the world and nation's reputation. so credit and national honor are very much bound together. and that is precisely how hamilton understood the idea of national credit. he assumed that it was fundamentally bound one national honor. to hamilton, a nation with bad credit was a nation without honor. as he put it in an unfinished report he wrote, defending his financial system after he stepped down, "bad credit,
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quote, prostated the national honor." given his utter conviction that bad credit meant national dishonor and how he firmly believed his policies were best for the nation and given how much he tied his own reputation to the founding of the nation, imagine how he felt when his policies were tramp tampered with. so for example in 1795 when congress didn't precisely follow his suggestions concerning the nation's unsubscribed debt hamilton went wild. "the unnecessary, capricious and abominable assassination tot national honor by the rejecting the debt in the house of representatives haunts me every step i take and affects me more than can i express. to see the character of the country so sported with puts my
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heart to the torture." . he goes on to say "am i then more of an american than those who drew their first breath on american ground? or what is it that thus torments me at a circumstance so calmly viewed by almost everybody else? am i a fool? or is there a constitutional defect in the american mind?" that is a remarkable statement and really shows how national honor was an intensely personal issue, a deeply felt personal issue he himself bound up his identity with. in fact he took the defense of national honor so seriously that he chose a really interesting word to describe the sacrifice of national honor. he called it "suicide." at least twice hamilton insisted that not defending national hopper was suicidal. as he put it in defense of his funding system? 1795, not attended properly to
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the national debt at the launching of the government would have humiliated the united states at the eyes of the world or quote, would have been an act of suicide of the government at the very commencement of its existence. not defending national honor was an act of political suicide. an idea he used more than once when discussing national policy. now that idea is that sacrificing honor is suicidal brings me the third part of my talk. hamilton's defense of his honor and the duel that led to his death and the logic behind it. over time some have suggesting that hamilton was suicidal in fighting that duel. be few you understand his idea that not defending honor is suicidal. and if you combine that with an understanding how the code of honor and duelling worked in the period you find his duel was not that simple.
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but before we turn to the duel i want to turn just a moment to the code of honor and duelling. for a national politician honor was more than just a vague sense of self worth it represented his ability to preserve himself a political leader. rules of the behavior became very important and this makes sense. where insults carry such grave consequence, where the wrong word might end up leading you to the duelling ground, there have to be clearly defined rules and standards so accidental insults and violence can be avoided. the code of honor set out clear standards of conduct. words that you were supposed the avoid, actions that you were supposed to avoid and when a line was crossed, and honor was offended the code of honor offered a regulated way of settling the dispute hopefully with negotiations but sometimes with gun play on a duelling
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ground. for example there were a number who i call alarm bell words that you could never use in reference to another gentlemen. words like liar, coward, rascal -- which has kind of lost a little of its zing in the 21sst century. scoundrel, and puppy. which has really lost all of its zing in the 21st century. everyone knew insulting a man with one of those words was as good as challenging him to a duel. in a sense it was a dare that demanded a response to. ignore it would be to dishonor yourself. by hamilton's logic, to commit political suicide. once a man felt he had been dishonored matters followed predictable ritualistic steps according to the code of honor. the man who felt offends would write a form letter and it would include five basic statements. first i've been told that you insulted, second repeat the
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insult precisely. third it would ask this account true or false? and fourth, do you have an explanation? and fifth it would demand an immediate response, typically by demanding quote the respect due to a man of honor. now that kind of letter really almost a form letter, was an alarm bell signaling that honor had been offended and the person writing that letter was willing to fight. and from that pain on, as soon as you receive that kind of a letter, you are engaged in an affair of honor and your every word and action could result in a duel. this is typically the point where each man would appoint a second to represent him. a person who acted as a kind of lawyer negotiating terms for his client hopefully finding a way to form an apology without humiliating either party. ideally these negotiations allowed hon are to be satisfied without any violence. the point of an affair of honor was to demonstrate your willingness to die for your
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honor, not necessarily to engage in gun play and not necessarily to kill your opponent. and it's sort of counterintuitive but true. the point of a duel is to prove that you are willing to die for your honor. you don't need to have a gun in your hand to prove that. you newest need to prove you are willing to duel and even on a duelling ground you are not trying to kill your opponent. you're trying to prove that you are brave enough to be there and take part, willing to die for your honor. once you understand in this way and the all of the letter sending and negotiations of affair of honor you discover there were many more affairs of honor in middle america than most think. hamilton was involved in at least ten of these affairs of honor which are in a sense duels without gunfire before his duel with burr. in new york city alone, in the 12 years surrounding the burr

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